Writer, Ada Hoffman recently got some press for a series of tweets about writing strong female characters by giving them “agency,” in which she says “Agency is not about characters being good or bad characters, it is about what the characters are given the opportunity to do.”
Yeah, sure. I’ll go along with that. Look, characters are written to serve all kinds of literary needs. The most important, in my opinion, are to entertain and evoke thought about the human condition. Women (or men) who fumble through scenes tripping over rocks and having to be helped along are not very interesting, though every archetype has it’s place. But I was stunned, recently, when a fellow writer and self-professed feminist declared, “You want to know how NOT to write female characters, just look at Sarah on the TV show Chuck.”
Really? A tough as nails, sexy woman who uses every asset at her disposal to overcome crushing oppression, then wrestles with moral, professional, and personal balance as she tries to grow as a spy, a woman, and a contributor to human society? Oh well, of course not. Why would we want more characters like that? I am a feminist, big time, if that means women should not be treated like chattel, but they should still be allowed to be women in the process.
Meg Ryan made a film called Courage Under Fire in which she played a soldier whose helicopter crashes, and while issuing orders to male subordinates, stops to say “What are you looking at? It’s just tears. It doesn’t mean anything.” Now, if you interpret that to mean girls are cry-babies who shouldn’t be in combat, you are wrong. But if you interpret it to mean the screenwriter was deluded by stereotypes, you are equally wrong. The reason I remember it is, my wife was in the army when we met, and she told me about occasions when she or others would cry under stress, and how the men freaked out about it.
But I’ll tell you something. My wife has an expert marksman medal and a wall full of commendations, and when she was in, she could run just as far and do twice as many pushups as required for the men. Only the rangers beat her at orienteering, and during field exercises, after she ordered a prisoner shot for repeatedly trying to signal her squad’s position (which makes him a combatant under rules of engagement), a grizzled gulf war vet (who had seen her tears on at least on occasion) shook her hand in front of all the drills and said he’d serve with her any day. So would I.
Which is a long-winded way of saying, women are more complicated than stereotypes, because women are people, and people are complicated. And women are more complicated than the anti-stereotype archetypes that some want to advance, which are in themselves, just stereotypes.
Now, I can’t ever know what it means to live a particular woman’s life. So what? My wife can’t know what it means to live my sister’s life. But I can write characters that speak to both, to all of us, and that’s often what I try to do. We each face unique challenges and hurdles, and what one woman or man may brush off as par for the course, may be a crippling obstacle to another.
When I write a female character, often as not, I just envision her that way, and that mental image has as much to do with personality, wit, style, and logical position within the universe at hand, as it does with overt, contemporary themes of gender identity, procreation, and career-life balance. Unless that’s what the story is about.
Which brings me back to Ada’s point. Stories are not, generally, about getting characters right, so much as about putting them in interesting circumstances. Almost all literary characters are exaggerations of real life, and that’s okay. That’s what enables them to react to the plot in an evocative, memorable, even riveting way. That’s what enables them to tell us about ourselves.